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Brief Encounter With ... Andy Graham

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What's your job title and what responsibilities does it entail?
I'm the arts programmer and artistic director for the Rhodes Arts Complex in Bishop's Stortford. This involves programming a diverse range of work including theatre, contemporary dance, music, everything from the classics to tribute bands and jazz, and cinema. It's important to attract high-profile work, such as Stones in His Pockets or The Magic of the Dance and also celebrities – we've had Bob Wilson and Angela Rippon and [Edward Fox} are coming later this year. Both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance have played here recently.

I'm also involved in setting up theatre residencies and in developing new spaces for the arts with a particular emphasis on young people’s needs and aspirations. Then there's producing the increasingly important professional/community pantomime. A new studio is being built to be used as a rehearsal and practice space and will open next year. It will be great for young people just getting set up in the industry. What were you doing before? I was artistic director of the nationally acclaimed Snap Theatre Company from 1979 to 2005, then director of the worldwide cultural project for children, international artists and teachers The Longest Story in the World 2005-2009. I'm on a three year contract here which began in 2007.

What training did you have?
Originally in Birmingham as a teacher. I had been a member of the National Youth Theatre and then a professional actor, director and writer. I had no training as an arts administrator other than setting up and running companies on a shoestring then getting them to reach out to people and making them financial viable.

Is this a step forward, or sideways?
Rhodes is a step forward in the sense it gives me an exciting challenge to market and programme a venue in an area which I know well having lived here 30 years. Another perspective one gains from working with touring theatre is through creating a facilitation role with the receiving company whilst looking at the ever-changing community. This does put you on the spot; if the show goes down well you get the praise and equally if the show is not up to scratch you get the flack, even though you have little or no say in the artistic content. So, quality is the key and box well above your weight! Don’t waste money but have dreams and aspirations with realistic goals. Some you will never reach but you still need them.

What are the differences between programming for a multi-media, multi-purpose arts centre and a conventional theatre?
Programming for a multi-purpose arts complex is in many way just like a theatre. The main thing is that you are still expected to be a juggler. In theatre you are juggling plays whereas here you are juggling plays, cinema, dance and celebrities and holding a violin in one hand whilst pirouetting. It gets parts of the brain working which ordinary people don’t have to function with. The secret is if you don’t catch all the balls you are juggling, bluff it and do it with style!

Given Bishop's Stortford's proximity to London and the fact that it's prime commuting territory, are there special issues in this location which would not necessarily occur elsewhere?
Bishop’s Stortford is unique in comparison with other commuting territory in the sense that it has Stansted Airport on its doorstep. So there are workers from Portugal, Poland and Brazil. The Arts Complex respects the diverse nature of its community and builds in to its cinema and arts programming events which attract wide cross-sections of the town. The venue has a cultural heritage, not only as the home of Cecil Rhodes but also there is a music legacy. And that is coming alive and kicking. Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Cream, Fleetwood Mac all played here in the hay-day of the Sixties. It was an important part of the touring circuit.

Who makes up your audience?
The audience is everyone: from theatre for under two-year-olds –we had Baby Balloon from Oily Cart – young children, teenagers for the regular Rhodes Rocks events promoting new talent in the music industry, tribute bands for the 30- to 55-year-olds, classic cinema which attracts a 55- plus audience. The footfall has risen in three years from 20,000 to our current 60,000 attendances at the complex each year.

What's your catchment area?
Bishop’s Stortford, of course, but also much of East Hertfordshire, Cambridge, Braintree and Harlow in Essex, Broxbourne and Stevenage to the north-west in Hertfordshire and London!

What's the programming breakdown?
Comedy nights monthly, Rhodes Rocks monthly, tribute bands monthly, theatre twice monthly, classical concerts every two months, celebrities twice annually, clairvoyants annually, dance now once every two months, cinema twice monthly with an emphasis on those films that normally do not feature on the main circuit, like The Reader, Milk or The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, annual children’s theatre festivals and activities for children and young people during all holiday periods. There's a youth theatre in three age groups which meets weekly and we also hold workshops. Mostly it's one-nighters but now some shows run for two nights and more.

Is it a spur-of-the-moment audience or one which books in advance?
They book in advance largely except for Rhodes Rocks and Comedy Nights. Films are being booked more in advance that ever, a change there is afoot (seating is numbered and can be reserved). We have a licensed bar and no popcorn - and no ads whatsoever. It’s the film that counts. Why do you do this job? It’s part of the jigsaw of life and this is a piece of a rather big puzzle. Enjoy it? Well I am still smiling and feeling good! Andy Graham was talking to Anne Morley-Priestman

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